Bioshock and Interactive Storytelling
Updated: Oct 4, 2021
The following segment is from a report written for a class on Interactive Narrative. The focus being to breakdown the storytelling tools the creators used to tell the award-winning story of Bioshock. Bioshock was a multiplatform First-Person Shooter created by Irrational Games, which was rebranded to Ghost Story Games later on in the studio’s life. The game follows a man whose plane ends up crashing near a lighthouse, leading him to discover the underwater city of Rapture. The player must use the weapons and abilities known as Vigors to escape the madness sunk underwater. The series has a heavy focus on making an interactive world and deep world-building. The creators use multiple tools to explain and introduce the player to the world of Bioshock using multiple game writing tools. These range from direct dialogue with the player, collectible records, and environmental storytelling. All of these tools come together to deliver all the lore and dialogue in a way that feels natural, and easy for the average player to understand. The main vehicle for the story of Bioshock is the conversations and scenes the players have with various characters in the game world. All the characters in Bioshock are fully voice-acted, allowing for a better understanding of the characters. Throughout the game, there are three different types of scenes in the game, the first being Cutscenes. Cutscenes are entirely scripted events where control is taken away from the player. These cutscenes tend to be key moments in the game that have to happen in a specific way, as these types of scenes allow them greater control over the second to the second direction of the action. Scripted
Scenes allow the player to walk and interact with the world, but the actual actions of the scene can’t be influenced by their actions. These tend to be used when they need control over the outcome of a scene, but they can’t justify taking away control from the player. The final type of the scene is Gameplay Events, which are events that happen in reaction to the action taken by the player. These include situations such as with the Little Sisters, where you can choose to save or drain a Little Sister, which affects the ending and how it plays out when you defeat the final boss. Another example is how enemies have conversations with each other when they are unaware of the player’s location. These conversations often give a glimpse into both the minds of the current occupants, alongside the past lives they used to live in the glory of Rapture’s golden years. It also acts as a reward for players who are being careful, as the conversation will end when the player is spotted, building on the world and enforcing a gameplay style at the same time. These three types of scenes all are used to tell the main story of Bioshock, while the next two methods are used to build the background information.
In one of the many Scripted Scenes, a Big Daddy attacks another human from behind a glass wall. This showcases the sheer power Big Daddies have, without having to put the player in direct danger yet.
Audio Logs are used in Bioshock in order to explain key background information or tell an event that happened before the player arrived. These audio logs can be picked up by the player, and when activated they play a pre-recorded message. These logs are often framed in the game as logs of someone’s work, personal memos, or voicemails to other people. Sometimes these are messages from characters that you can encounter during an Event, and sometimes they are characters that you only hear from the various Audio Logs scattered across the game. This optional content allows the developers to not only include a lot of information without overloading the player but also allows the player to control how much content they listen to. This strikes a good balance between the people who like story-heavy video games and those that just want the raw gameplay. The final tool of Storytelling employed throughout most of Bioshock is environmental storytelling. The environments of Bioshock are filled with all sorts of details that help flesh out the backstory of Bioshock without even making the player think about it. For example, there are a lot of references to a New Years' party in 1959 throughout the city in the form of various posters and signs hanging around, despite the fact that the plane intro clearly implies the game takes place past the ’60s. In the middle of the restaurant you explore, there are still decorations from a New Years Party, and signs of an explosion going off in the middle of the dining area. This already implies something terrible happened during the party, and most likely was the downfall of their society. When the player finally discovers an audio log of a woman who died during the New Year's attack, the player could have been able to piece together the basic scenario just by the details in the world.
The scene of the New Years' disaster, which led to the downfall of Rapture. Plenty of clues of what happened are buried throughout the ruins. Bioshock is a very impressive FPS game that is able to balance having a deep and complex backstory without overwhelming casual players or players who don’t care about the story. It’s a proven model of writing content in games that other studios have started to follow in the video game industry. However, the expert-level execution of the concepts present in the game put it a cut above the rest. The way the cutscenes, audio logs, and environmental storytelling mix and enhance each other so expertly throughout the game creates an addicting storyline that’s impossible to forget about. Combined with the high interactivity of the environment and iconic art direction, it creates a living world that the player can freely explore and get immersed inside of. The game is not perfect, especially in terms of being a stable and bug-free experience, but this game’s immersion factor makes the small headaches to get this game running properly on modern Windows machines easily worth it in my opinion.